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The far end of Carmel Valley Road is a true E-ticket ride. For those not old enough to remember, the E-ticket rides were the ones at Disneyland with the longest lines—and the biggest thrills. And this winding, 30-mile stretch of narrow blacktop, with its off-camber S-curves and blind switchbacks, comes about as close as you can get, especially if you’re in the right car.

So it’s somewhat surprising that we’re making the run in the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This Teutonic sedan has always been a luxurious and solid ride, but not one you’d mistake for a sports car. At least in the past tense, you’d be right.

Over the last few years, Mercedes has invested a lot in an advertising campaign designed to pump some passion into a brand better known for its aloofness. There’s no hiding the fact that the German carmaker envies the emotional response generated by its cross-town rival, BMW. What a ride down Carmel Valley Road reveals is that Mercedes is using more than just smoke-and-mirrors.  It’s transforming the very heart and soul of its products.

Soul integration

The transformation actually began with the last-generation E-Class, which introduced the double-bubble headlights that are, in various forms, the new signature of the Mercedes-Benz brand. But where the look of the old car never quite came together—it appeared to be the result of several different styling exercises awkwardly merged together—the ’03 E-Class has a smooth, consistent and appealing elegant look from nose to tail, with a character line running the length of the car that gives it a strong, muscular stance.

The new vehicle is roughly an inch larger in all key dimensions, such as length, wheelbase and height. That’s not a lot, but just enough to make an impact on key factors, such as interior room and road dynamics.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

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The more emotional exterior look is echoed inside, with a passenger compartment that is far more welcoming than any we’ve ever seen before from Mercedes. The cabin has a more organic flow to it, underscored by a tasteful strip of wood that flows the length of the instrument panel before wrapping into the door panels.

The displays are quite classy, though surprisingly simple in design, especially compared to the flashy lights and graphics Japanese luxury marques have adapted. But functionally, the E-Class instrumentation is a lot easier to read. And there’s an all-new approach to controls, especially climate control and audio, which is a marked improvement over the past, where it required a good bit of learning to know how to find, let alone operate everything.

The climate control system really underscores the way Mercedes has upgraded its mid-size mainstay. The top-line E500 now offers a four-zone system, with separate controls for each of the back seat occupants.

Sound choices

Then there’s the audio. In an unusual move, Mercedes has chosen to offer the same basic system as archrival BMW, Harman Kardon’s incredible Logic 7. This seven-channel package is arguably the best factory-equipped audio system on the road these days, and can transform the cabin into a true soundstage. The presence is so overwhelming, you’d think there was a concert hall atop the dashboard.

Though we’re generally pleased by the changes in the interior, we do have a few complaints. Despite the elegant choice of materials, the tightness of the cabin fits does not yet match the best of the Japanese.

And there remain a few notable ergonomic issues, especially the placement of the cruise control stalk. Over the course of some 300 miles behind the wheel of the new car, we continuously confused it for the turn signal. And a few of the audio controls, especially those for the in-dash six-disc CD changer were counter-intuitive to operate. The automatic transmission stalk is another, though more minor, problem. In drive, it’s placed a bit too far back to be comfortable to use in manual mode.

A new seating system is the antithesis of Mercedes past. Where you once used to sit on a big Benz seat, the new car’s front buckets embrace you. Nearly 50 sensors are used to measure a motorist’s body and weight, data then used to subtly adjust the seat for a more comfortable ride. The changes are especially apparent during hard driving, when you’re firmly cradled.

Sensors in the seat also help program the new, “smart” airbag system. Overall, there are eight front, side and head bags protecting both front and rear occupants.

Overall quality is the best we’ve seen on a Mercedes, with the exception of a glovebox door that, on both cars we drove, had trouble closing.

Complaints aside, this is without question the best interior we’ve seen from Mercedes, even compared to the more upmarket S-Class.

We’d strongly recommend the new double-Panorama sunroof, by the way. For those who enjoy an overhead vista, it’s the largest piece of glass we’ve ever seen on a passenger car and well worth the price.

Passion and performance

The real test comes on the road, and as we started this review by mentioning, the most dramatic and welcome improvements to the 2003 E-Class show up while pushing the car to its limits.

We had the chance to drive the new E320 as well as the renamed E500, the change in nomenclature reflecting the upgrade to a new, 302-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8. Both of our test vehicles were equipped with the automaker’s semi-active air suspension system.

Extensive use of aluminum and magnesium has helped trim the weight of the new E-Class, even though it is a bigger and better-equipped vehicle than the model it replaces. Even so, the 221-hp E320 might seem a slight bit anemic for those who want maximum performance. It’s a competent powertrain, but not quite crisp enough off the line, or when trying to execute a high-speed pass.

But perhaps we were spoiled by spending the first half of our long trip behind the wheel of the E500. There’s no question that this engine has plenty of power, with torque coming on quickly at the low ends and enough horsepower to make this a true Autobahn-burner. Even at 80, the car literally leaps when you slam the throttle for a pass.

Real passionate performance requires more than just off-the-line acceleration, of course, and here’s where one can really appreciate the new car. The stiffer body is instantly apparent as one scrambles through a series of wildly twisting S-curves. The new rack-and-pinion steering—a welcome first for the E-Class—is precise and quick, with plenty of feedback to keep you in touch with a road ready to run away from you.

The all-season tires our test car came equipped with proved one of the bigger surprises on our long drive. They held firmly with nary a squeal, allowing us to throw the rear out just a bit to better position ourselves for a fast run around a tight switchback.

Electronic enhancement

Another pleasant surprise concerns the sophisticated ride control systems built into the new E-Class. The air suspension proved especially responsive and able to maintain stability under the worst driving conditions.

Mercedes has had a history of programming other ride systems, such as its ESP stability control, to operate quite intrusively. They have a tendency to come in at the first sign of trouble, cutting power and even applying some brake force. Perhaps we were just a bit less observant, but it seems like Mercedes has dialed back a bit with the new E-Class, trusting the driver to get things right, and leaving ESP and traction control to kick in only when things seem truly out-of-control.

That said, we did find fault with one piece of advanced hardware. Mercedes has been quick to adopt so-called drive-by-wire technology—using it on the E-Class for both brakes and throttle. We found the brakes a bit inconsistent, grabby at times, smooth at others; not enough to be really objectionable, but something that could use a bit of tweaking.

During the preview of the new E-Class, one question came up repeatedly: won’t the new car cut into demand for Mercedes’ top-line S-Class sedan? Company officials were quick to differentiate the two products and indeed, they tend to appeal to a distinctly different mindset. But there’s no question there’ll be at least some downward migration; considering the elegance and affluence of the new model, it’s likely to win over at least some S-Class owners looking for a little bit more aggressive a driving experience. Of course, Mercedes will roll out an update of the S-Class soon, and we expect marked improvements in that vehicle, as well.

With the new E-Class, Mercedes has pulled out all the stops. It is difficult to understate just how much of an improvement has been made in an already strong product. The 2003 E-Class clearly shows that Mercedes can build a driver’s car. In performance and handling terms, it’s still not quite a BMW, but the E-Class has plenty of other advantages that will help it maintain its edge in a tightly competitive luxury segment.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Base Price:
E320: $46,950; E500: $54,850
Engine: E320: 3.2-liter 221-hp V-8; E500: 5.0-liter 302-hp V-8
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual mode and steering wheel shift
Length x width x height: 190.3 x 71.3 x 57.0 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 inches
Curb weight: E320/E500: 3635/3813 lbs
EPA City/Hwy: 19/27; 19/23
Safety equipment: Adaptive front airbags, Side and head airbags, emergency phone system, anti-lock brakes, traction control, Electronic Stability Program, electro-hydraulic brakes with Electronic Brake Force Distribution, belt tensioners and belt force limiters
Major standard equipment: 10-way power seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, four-zone auto A/C and Airmatic suspension (both standard on E500, opt. on E320), bi-xenon headlamps, power windows, door locks, anti-theft alarm
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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